In June 2011, Real Madrid paid around €10 million for a 17-year-old centre-back whose experience amounted to 23 appearances with French side Lens. To say eyebrows were raised was something of an understatement.
Yet, Raphaël Varane came with a glowing recommendation from club legend Zinedine Zidane. He told club president Florentino Perez that the 6'3" Frenchman would become the finest French centre-back since Laurent Blanc.
With such weight of expectation, it would have been understandable for the inexperienced youngster to take time to break into his stride with Los Blancos. Instead, he justified his price tag from the outset, and is a long way down the road to becoming the next Laurent Blanc—at just 19 years old.
Thanks to the sporadic absences of Pepe and Sergio Ramos during this campaign—and defensive issues that have forced Michael Essien into the left-back position on occasion—Varane has been given 23 starts for Madrid this season. Of those, Madrid have only lost three.
The precocious Frenchman etched his claim for a regular first-team place with a superb El Clasico debut in the King's Cup in January. His defending was faultless, he scored Madrid's goal and earned high praise from Gerard Pique (via Goal.com):
Varane had a magnificent game, it's very hard to look that good at that age for this club. It was a pleasure to play in a match like that, it was a great spectacle.
A few weeks later, he played the return leg at the Nou Camp and found his name on the scoresheet once more. Over the two legs he didn't concede a single foul over 30 interceptions and completed 80 percent of his passes.
He was also selected to start in both legs of the Champions League tie with Manchester Utd. His satisfactory performances against the likes of Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck will have irked Sir Alex Ferguson, who had the opportunity to sign him from Lens, but he chose to bring in Phil Jones instead.
Varane's exceptional abilities have been brought to the forefront once again following Madrid's dismantlement of Galatasaray in the Champions League quarter-final first leg.
In that game, Varane completed all 28 of his passes, produced 17 interceptions and six clearances, all without committing a single foul. Didier Drogba is normally very difficult to contain, yet Varane matched his physicality and often made it look easy. After the game, the Ivorian became one of his latest admirers (via @MadridistaFacts):
I cannot believe Varane is only 19, he is one of the best defenders I've ever had in front of me.
Incredibly, Varane has now gone eight games and 720 minutes without conceding a foul. The last time the referee blew up after one of his challenges was in the loss to Grenada at the beginning of February.
He is powerful, he is tall, he plays with intelligence and rationality and is obviously unfazed by taking on the world's best players in high-profile games.
Clearly, Varane is on the path to becoming one of the greatest defenders in the world.
With a €10 million and €1 million base salary, B/R writer Adrian Melville also astutely argues that the French international is one of the best value players in the game today.
Somewhat refreshingly—and unlike a certain Portuguese forward at his club—Varane is also said to be utterly free of any ego. According to The Guardian's Sid Lowe, Pepe describes him as "super-humble," while another teammate likened him to a monk.
Real Madrid have had many standout players among their Galacticos in this campaign, but the most exciting players are surely the youngsters like Varane who are breaking through and providing optimism for the future.
(Alongside Varane, it would be remiss not to credit Alvaro Morata, the striker who has graduated Real Madrid Castilla to feature in four league matches this season, most notably the Clasico in which he set up the opener and created plenty of chances.)
With an increasing epidemic of high scorelines across Europe's top leagues, many pundits argue that the art of defending is dead. With so much emphasis on scoring goals, rather than defending against them, a centre-back of Varane's quality and promise is revitalizing for Los Blancos and La Liga.